In the next stop on our San Francisco 49ers Week 6 victory tour, we focus on a part of the team that almost went ignored in the franchise’s glory years of the 1980s and ’90s: special teams.
We went over how great the defense played on Sunday in Detroit, and how much they’ve improved since last year with (mostly) the same personnel. It’s a huge part of the reason why Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have been content to roll with a relatively conservative offensive attack for the most part, which a big play sprinkled in here and there.
Evidence that the Niners aren’t led by their offense was visible when Harbaugh punted on 4th-and-1 two different times in the fourth quarter. The second time was a no-brainer since the Niners were on their own 29-yard-line, but the first time they did it, down 4 with just over 11 minutes remaining, they were on their own 49.
Harbaugh looked like he almost decided to go for it, but then decided against it at the last second. And it wasn’t just because the defense had shown the ability to stop Detroit consistently, but because the 49ers have Andy Lee and a disciplined coverage team led by assistant head coach/special teams coach Brad Seely.
Lee’s punt was fair-caught at Detroit’s 8-yard-line, and while Matthew Stafford completed a 41-yard pass to Calvin Johnson on the first play of the ensuing series, a penalty on the next play stopped the Lions’ momentum and four plays later they had to punt it back to San Francisco.
For those who remember when the pre-Harbaugh times when the 49ers were actually good, try to imagine a game with these numbers coming from what during the Bill Walsh and George Seifert eras used to be the forgotten side of the game.
David Akers: 3-for-3 in field goals, with a 55-yarder (especially important considering Jason Hanson missed a 52-yard FG attempt a minute or so earlier); 5 kickoffs, 5 touchbacks.
Andy Lee: 9 punts, 47.8 yard average (41.0 net), 4 times inside the 20.
Ted Ginn: 4 kickoff returns, 26.3 yard average (decent); 3 punt returns, 24.0 yard average (outstanding).
It’s rare that any team has a game where the game is expressly won on special teams (although that was the case in Week 1 against Seattle when Ginn returned a kickoff and punt for touchdowns), but consistently strong performances from the kicker and punter, along with the return and coverage teams, makes life much easier for Harbaugh and his staff. It might not lead to the Niners going for it on fourth down as often as fans would like, but if they continue to win five out of every six games, nobody will complain too much.